Yesterday’s Grand Prix in Bahrain marked a new low for Formula One racing. I cannot understand why popular brands such as Red Bull, which normally go to great lengths to protect their reputations, voluntarily associate themselves with a government that practices widespread discrimination against the majority of their people. The race did provide the opposition with a public stage on which to demonstrate that little has improved since the government crackdown of last year. It also offered an unintended contrast to today’s decision by President Obama’s to impose additional sanctions on Syria and Iran. The contrast is not flattering to the Administration.
The Arab Spring needs to be seen as an international phenomenon. From the beginning two competing narratives have competed to explain it. The first is that, in country after country, ordinary citizens have gradually risen up to rebel against corrupt and stagnant regimes and to demand more freedom for themselves. In doing so they have seldom shared a united vision of what type of government should replace the one they have. That has been a problem for another day. Displacing decades of oppression has been a hard enough job. Although the national movements have been largely separate, they draw inspiration and momentum from each other. Victories in one country offer hope to demonstrators elsewhere that their sacrifices will be worthwhile. Although this narrative has threatened some traditional U.S. allies, it is strongly in our favor. It affirms our values and promises to tilt the balance of power in the region strongly in our favor. It offers the chance to put countries like Tunisia and Egypt on the slow path toward higher livings standards and a more plural society. Just as important, the momentum has placed enormous strain on the Syrian regime. If Syria falls, the Iranian regime, together with its allies Hezbollah and Hamas, will come under intense pressure.
The competing narrative is that this is all one big sectarian conflict that has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with whether Shiites or Sunnis rule each country. Not surprisingly, threatened regimes have been the largest advocates of this theory. So far there has been little evidence to back it. Protestors have been largely peaceful, nonsectarian, and focused mainly on removing the ancient regime rather than replacing it with anything in particular. The greatest danger to the Middle East is that it may slowly becoming true. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s tendency to treat each country in isolation and to react to events rather than follow a proactive strategy increases this risk. That is why U.S. strategy toward Bahrain is so important.
The gradual militarization of the conflict in Syria threatens to eclipse the peaceful cries for universal rights and draw in combatants on both sides who are more interested in the spoils of power and the settling of scores. These parties have a strong interest in seeing the war in sectarian terms. It may be too late for the U.S. to influence this trend except on the margins. However, by pressing hard on Bahrain as it is on Syria to make meaningful democratic reforms in the next six months, the U.S. could give an important boost to the democratic narrative. In Bahrain a Sunni minority is using torture and massive force to oppress a Shiite majority. The Obama Administration mildly condemns this while imposing sanctions on Syria for similar behavior. Using our full influence, including the presence of the Fifth Fleet, would send a clear signal to the Middle East that the United States is willing to support any population fighting for its freedom. Progress in Bahrain would hearten Sunni protestors in Syria as well as Shiite protestors in Iran.
On a broader scale it would help if the Administration announced a series of principles that would guide its policy in the region: 1) the U.S. will offer moral and logistical support to any people that peacefully protests for the extension of basic human rights; 2) we will apply gradual but escalating sanctions to any regime that consistently refuses to extend these rights to its people; 3) working with other established democracies, we will respond to any requests for technical assistance on building the civil institutions that are critical to democratic societies; and 4) if a population democratically elects a government that pursues policies that are fundamentally hostile to the United States (as arguably has happened in Venezuela, Gaza, and Iran), we will defend our interests appropriately. These principles, if strongly pursued on a consistent basis offer the best hope of sustaining the democratic narrative and maintaining its momentum against all oppressive regimes in the Middle East.